Casting Lots : Ancient Hebrew Divination Magic, by Elisheva Nesher

Depending which translations and scholars you consult, casting of lots is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible between 40 and 50 times. A few of those references are Joshua 7:14, where a guilty party is determined by lot, Proverbs 18:18, which says that lots settle disputes, and Jonah 1:7, where lots are cast to determine which of the gods is responsible for the storm. Prior to Judaism being formalized as a religion, many societies believed not in one supreme God, but in many gods, each having specific qualities and areas of power, and the ritual of the casting of Hebrew lots still refers back to those times, when some believed that ancestors and lesser gods could be contacted for guidance through various means, including lots.

Nesher’s book is divided into two sections. The first half is a history of the practice, including many more Bible references, a consideration of the societies that used lots, and recommendations on the respectful handling of lots, for anyone who might make a set of their own. The second half of the book considers each letter of the Hebrew alphabet in depth, explaining the traditional meaning and attributes of the letter, and what its various meanings could be when that letter comes up in lot casting.

Diana Paxson, the author of the book “Taking Up Runes,” the Celtic equivalent of casting of lots, wrote the preface for this book, and she provides some insights about Nesher, who lived in the Cincinnati area since the 1980s and died this past New Year’s Day. Nesher grew up on a kibbutz in Israel and served in the Israeli security forces. Her coworkers would sometimes cast lots when various other ways of reaching a decision had not been successful. She also studied archaeology at Tel Aviv University, and she developed an interest in belief systems that pre-date formal Judaism. In the book she mentions several times that she considered lot casting to be a Hebrew tradition, rather than a Jewish one.

All of this might bring to mind various kinds of fortune-telling, such as reading tea leaves, or a ouija board, but the author advises against casting lots as a party game or form of entertainment, and suggests ways to handle the lots and the rituals in a way that respects their historical importance. Generally any time lots are cast, a special cloth is laid out to delineate a sacred space, and the session has a formal beginning and ending. Questions to be asked would relate to making decisions or handling personal issues that are not medical questions that should be answered by a physician, and that generally are not simple yes/no questions. The lot caster would assist the person seeking advice in forming their questions.

I found the explanations of the meanings of the Hebrew letters to be enlightening. It is not related to gematria, which assigns a numerical value to each letter and calculates sums in various words. The emphasis here is on the shape of the letter, and in some cases the Hebrew words that sound like the letter name. The letter bet signifies home and family, and is related to the word for home, “bayit.” Vav signifies a peg or a hook, based on its appearance rather than its use in particular words. Mem relates to water or depths and is the first and last letter of the word for water, “mayim.” Resh, which means “head,” suggests a new line of thought or new course of action. In learning lot casting, it is advised to meditate on the significance of each letter separately, and perhaps sleep with that lot under the pillow. For each letter, there is a lengthy meditation, visualizing certain scenes, often in a desert environment. I would assume that either another person would read this aloud to the meditator, or one might record the text in order to practice with it.

A lot casting generally would consist of tossing all of the lots on a cloth, and then selecting the three that are closest, or seem to be three that are close together and should be selected. The person interpreting would then discuss how each letter relates to the question being asked. Nesher believed that the lot caster could receive guidance from the “elohim,” the spirits of the ancestors or ancient deities. Obviously this is something more esoteric than deciding which car model to buy, or what color paint to select. Since the meanings of the letters have more to do with values and personal attributes, I would assume that a reading would be helpful for questions related to interpersonal matters, or feeling stuck regarding making decisions or taking the next step in a process.

Can some people, or, any people at all, receive guidance from ancestors or other unseen entities through lots? Is it possible to learn to interpret lots strictly from reading a book about them? As with any mystical or folk tradition, these and many other questions can only be answered through personal experience. Whether or not you believe that divination is possible or desirable, this book provides a good history of the use of lots, grounded in the traditional shapes and meanings of the Hebrew alphabet.